Cape Town Tigers forward Samkelo Cele is the reason his team reached the upcoming Basketball Africa League playoffs in Kigali, Rwanda, and aims to become only the second South Africa-born NBA player since Steve Nash.
Cele, who scored 28 points in the Tigers’ final Nile Conference game to send them to Kigali, is from Durban, while Nash was born in Johannesburg before his family moved to Canada when he was a child. (Thabo Sefolosha, while of South African heritage, was born in Switzerland.)
The Tigers’ entire Cairo experience was a rollercoaster of Zaire Wade media dominance and a distinct lack of on court results, but when called upon in the final game, a must-win clash against City Oilers, Cele and his home-grown counterparts stepped up when their American teammates were out injured.
According to coach Rasheed Hazzard, who was an assistant coach and scout for the Los Angeles Lakers during their 2009 and 2010 championship triumphs, Cele even won the admiration of Dwyane Wade, who was in Cairo to watch Zaire.
Hazzard said: “For a young man like Sam who has NBA aspirations to perform the way he did in front of a Hall of Famer and have that person come up to you and tell you how you’re a hell of a player and how bright your future is, I just think it’s special.”
This ability to handle pressure came from Cele’s experience in NCAA Division I basketball, along with Tigers’ captain Pieter Prinsloo, despite learning the game in his teens after a childhood of soccer.
Cele spent two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and then played in the NCAA Division I for Southern University in 2020-21 and Marist College in 2021-22.
He subsequently finished his college career with the University of Science & Arts Drovers in the NAIA, where he was a third-team All-American. While the NAIA is not as big as the NCAA, Cele has no shortage of former NAIA All-Americans to look up to, including Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
For him, however, it is most important that he himself is seen as a role model back home, especially after he had to convince his mother that basketball could prove as a good a career move as football.
He told ESPN: “The area that we were from, we had never seen somebody be something or do something with basketball. It’s always been, ‘Oh, look at that kid from that house. He plays soccer and he’s gone there and done this’.
“With basketball, we had never seen anything – a success story, so to speak. It was very hard for my parents to understand what I was talking about, but we’re here nonetheless, so [my family] finally came around. Now, they believe.”
It took some time though, even after a young teen Cele won a basketball scholarship to Durban High School, one of the best schools in the city, his mom required some convincing.
He said: “It started off as you would imagine. I’m telling my mom, ‘Yeah, look – I play basketball. I need some basketball shoes and this and that.’
“It was a journey that I had to get through on my own, because the practices were a little late, so it would require me to get home late, so the conversations were not good…”
Naturally, Cele was able to convert his family into ardent believers, but anxiety remained in his household even as he made the journey to the US to follow his dream, initially at Bull City Prep in North Carolina after graduating at DHS in 2016.
He added: “It was very scary. Their reactions were like: ‘You’re going to be so far!’ It was scary at first, but we’re a family of faith. Everything that we do at home is based off our faith.
“In high school – I didn’t live at home in high school. I lived at school – that was faith. I got a chance to go to Serbia in, I think, 2015 [for a basketball camp]. Even that, I went by myself. That was all faith.”
However, the speed at which Cele’s basketball journey happened was a shock even to him: “I’m in South Africa, just starting to play basketball, then next thing, I am on a plane to North Carolina to go play basketball in the US. It’s been a great journey with its ups and downs, but nevertheless, a great journey.”
Cele stars as Cape Town Tigers advance to the finals
Samkelo Cele’s star showing powers the Cape Town Tigers past City Oilers to reach the BAL finals.
Cele had a turbulent college career, holding his own against top players but never quite settling down until his last stop with the Drovers, which only came about due to a technicality.
“It was a last-minute thing in terms of finding out very late that the NCAA hadn’t granted me my extra year and because I hadn’t graduated, I needed to finish school,” Cele said.
“That’s why I ended up at NAIA, because I was out of years of eligibility in the NCAA, but was it nerve-wracking? The first time I thought about it, [it was], but the more I spoke to my coach at the NAIA school, Coach Chris [Francis], he made me feel more and more comfortable to just go there.
“I knew what was going to be at stake and what would be required of me to have a successful year and a successful season. Speaking to Coach Chris a lot made the transition pretty smooth and, I guess, calming.”
Cele carried his form from his final college spell over to his first professional stint with the Cape Town Tigers and was arguably their best player at the Nile Conference in Cairo.
If he can sustain himself at a high level professionally, Cele could become a leader for his generation of South African basketball players. The men’s national team has not played at a major tournament since AfroBasket 2017, so helping to revive basketball nationally would be a dream for Cele.
“Representing South Africa internationally has always been a goal of mine. It’s been a goal since I was in high school – it’s been a goal since I can remember,” he said.
Although there has been an absence of international competition for South Africa in recent years, Pieter Prinsloo has emerged as a leader for his generation of players, captaining the Cape Town Tigers at the BAL.
Prinsloo, who like Cele played for Marist College, said of Cele: “He’s shown that through determination and drive that you can really achieve some of the things that you set your mind to do, so he has that going for him already.
“He is turning 26 this year, so for his generation of players, he could become a leader. In terms of that aspect, he just came out of uni that side, so that next jump is what he’s going to have to learn to take going forward.”
The Tigers will need every bit of inspiration from local and international players alike as they take on Stade Malien on May 20 in Kigali for a place in the BAL semi-finals as they look to go one step further than last year, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual champions US Monastir.
The BAL airs on ESPN’s channels in Africa. The playoffs and finals run from May 20 to 27.
This story originally appeared on ESPN